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ECUADOR: President “Stabbed In the Back” by Church Over Constitution

Rosa Rodríguez

QUITO, Aug 25 2008 (IPS) - The campaign for the Sept. 28 referendum on Ecuador’s newly rewritten constitution has got under way, with fierce arguments between the document’s supporters and opponents.

At the moment the main conflict is between those in favour of the new constitution, approved Jul. 24 by the Constituent Assembly, and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

Church prelates are vigorously opposed to the proposed constitution because they allege it opens the door to the legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage, although the word “abortion” is not mentioned in any of its articles.

“Certain aspects of the text are unacceptable to a Christian conscience,” the president of the Ecuadoran Episcopal Conference (CEE), Antonio Arregui, said earlier this month. He added that the Roman Catholic faithful would be offered “catechism” about the content of the new constitution so that they would be properly informed when it came time to vote.

Ecuador is a secular state, but over 90 percent of its 14 million people are Roman Catholics.

President Rafael Correa and the former president of the Constituent Assembly, Alberto Acosta, responded forcefully to the CEE statement.

The Catholic Church hierarchy is taking a political stance by openly supporting the No vote against the constitution, clearly aligning itself with rightwing sectors, Correa said.

Acosta publicly released a document he had received from the CEE, making a number of proposals to the Constituent Assembly, including recognition of de facto unions between same-sex couples.

Acosta told IPS that as president of the Constituent Assembly, he had on several occasions met with Catholic bishops. At one of these meetings they gave him a document, dated Apr. 1, 2008, signed by Arregui among others, which included a proposal for recognising “stable unions between couples, no matter what their gender or sexual orientation.”

“A good many of these proposals were included” in the draft constitution, Acosta added.

Last Thursday, in an interview broadcast by La Luna radio station in Quito, Correa said he felt the opposition by the Catholic hierarchy to be a betrayal, “like a stab in the back.”

A practising Catholic himself, he said that when he met with other South American presidents he used to brag about being the only leftwing president who had a good relationship with the Catholic hierarchy, but now that has changed.

Former CEE presiding bishop Néstor Herrera told the Internet news portal that the Catholic hierarchy would “make war” on Correa during the referendum campaign.

“If President Rafael Correa is looking for a battle with us, unfortunately we will have to make war on him,” the bishop said.

Maintaining that the Church “has never looked for a fight before, nor is it looking for one now,” the bishop said the Catholic Church is carrying out its pastoral task, which is “to make the faithful aware of the scope of this political instrument (the constitution), in the light of Catholic convictions.”

Herrera said the president was “mistaken” when he alleged that the Church was being “political” by announcing it would offer “catechism” about the text of the constitution now under consideration. Catechism, he said, “is broad and detailed teaching on the foundations of our faith, so that Christians may understand and direct their lives by it.”

The Church has clearly stated it will not take a stand on either side of the matter of the referendum, he insisted.

But immediately afterwards he contradicted himself: Correa should not worry, he said, because the Yes vote looks like it will win by a comfortable margin, while the Church “has neither the government’s publicity apparatus nor the president’s popularity” to promote the No vote.

Bishop Mario Ruiz Navas also complained that the proposed constitution is too “statist,” and puts an end to state support for private schools, particularly religious schools.

But several priests and laypersons expressed disagreement with these views.

A new constitution was a key campaign pledge by President Rafael Correa, who took office Jan. 15, 2007. Although over 81 percent of Ecuadoreans voted in April 2007 for the convening of a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, the process of producing the document which will be submitted to the will of the electorate next month has been arduous.

Tens of thousands of small farmers, indigenous peoples and social organisations rallied last Saturday in Quito to hear Correa speak in favour of the constitution, according to international press reports. The atmosphere was festive and upbeat, with music, singing and dancing.

According to surveys published by Santiago Pérez Investigaciones and Perfiles de Opinión, two polling firms, 66 percent of interviewees have already decided how they will vote on Sept. 28.

The poll results differ in the percentages of voter intentions for Yes or No to the new constitution, and in the numbers of blank or spoiled ballots they forecast.

According to Pérez Investigaciones, which carries out surveys for the government, 50 percent of interviewees would vote Yes and 29 percent would vote No. The survey by Perfiles, in contrast, indicates 41 percent voting Yes, while the sum of No votes, blank and spoiled ballots would come to 45.9 percent.

For the constitution to be approved, Yes votes must reach over 50 percent of the ballots cast.

Given the current uncertainty as to the outcome of the referendum, in the view of consultant Paulina Recalde of Perfiles de Opinión, the Church is a significant political factor because it enjoys broad credibility.

“The scenario is a complicated one for the president, because if he makes comments denigrating or offending the Church in any way, he may hurt the feelings of believers,” she said.

The questionnaire administered by Pérez Investigaciones included the question: “Are the groups that oppose the constitution against it because it is a bad constitution, or because they fear losing their privileges?”

Sixty-three percent answered that their opposition was for fear of loss of privilege, and 25 percent replied that it was because it was a bad constitution.

According to the same survey, 55 percent of interviewees said that the work of the Constituent Assembly had been done well, or very well.

Cedatos, another firm, published the results of a survey of 1,400 people in 15 cities, indicating that 41 percent would vote Yes and 35 percent would vote No.

On Aug. 16, in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s main port and largest city with over two million people, 250 kilometres southwest of the capital, during Correa’s weekly nationwide radio programme, broadcast from the Catholic University of Guayaquil, groups of university students supporting the Yes and No votes clashed with police.

Both sides have tried to take the moral high ground by blaming their opponents for instigating the violence.

In early August, close to 100 rural and urban social organisations, in particular ECUARUNARI, the Confederation of Peoples of the Quechua Nation, the largest member of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), announced the formation of an autonomous “Social Front” to campaign for the Yes vote, while keeping a distance between themselves and the government.

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